Lawyers offer pro bono work to former GA recipients
on April 20, 2010
A Social Services Agency office in downtown Oakland was busy on a recent morning with people applying for food stamps and inquiring about services. Lawyer Teague Briscoe stood in the center of the office, looking around with her piercing but gentle eyes and pointed to a man with a piece of paper, which Briscoe suspected was a letter from the Social Services Agency, sitting in between a young mother with her crying baby and a middle aged African-American man. “I think you should talk to him,” said Briscoe to her 22-year old intern Andrea Goddard, who is a law student at University of San Francisco. They do not work for the agency, but they are there to help those who lost their county General Assistance funds on April 1.
Alameda County’s looming budget crisis led the county to cut off about 2,400 people from the county’s General Assistance fund, or GA, a safety net cash program provided to indigent adults without dependent children who have little or no savings and no source of income. However, Briscoe, a staff attorney at the Homeless Action Center, a nonprofit organization that serves homeless people in Oakland and Berkeley, has engineered a pilot program called GA Mass Defense to help people who lost their funds request a hearing with the Social Service Agency in an effort to get their funds restored. The center is offering to represent them for free in the hearings scheduled for this week. Since February, Briscoe and 30 interns at the Homeless Action Center have been canvassing in the agency office to let people know about GA Mass Defense.
GA recipients in Alameda County get a maximum of $336 a month for a year and are also eligible for food stamps. GA is technically a loan, so recipients are obliged to pay the money back once they are able to work or become eligible for Social Security income.
Until recently, people were allowed to collect GA benefits for up to one year. However, last June the Alameda County Board of Supervisors voted to impose a three-month time limit on recipients deemed “employable” as of January 1, 2010. As a result about 2,400 people lost the money that provides them with the most basic living expenses. Only GA recipients who were deemed “unemployable” after submitting a form from a doctor stating that they are mentally or physically unable to work were allowed to continue receiving funds.
Yet Briscoe believes that many people who were cut off are truly unable to work. “I think at least 30 percent of the people who lost GA are eligible for GA, ” said the 29-year old. Local agencies including Bay Area Legal Aid have criticized the Social Services Agency’s definition of “employable,” saying it does not take into consideration important factors like a GA recipient’s education, skills and mental health.
Briscoe fears that despite her program’s efforts to get people’s GA funds reinstated, more people might ultimately be cut from the GA rolls. She said that the agency is sending out letters to those who have already been classified as “unemployable” saying they must get new assessments by the agency. People classified as “unemployable” might lose their GA benefits, Briscoe said.
The Social Services Agency did not return a call for an phone interview requested by Oakland North.
Briscoe’s GA Mass Defense program was inspired by the National Lawyers Guild’s Mass Defense Committee, which was launched in 1968 in response to Vietnam War protests and arrests at Columbia University, but now defends activists involved in a variety of issues. Committee members have acted as legal observers for arrested activists as they rallied for civil rights and reproductive rights, or against police misconduct or the war in Iraq.
Briscoe said that those who lost their GA funds have a higher possibility of getting their funding back if they request a hearing and have a lawyer to represent them. But few people are aware of their right to request a hearing or have money to hire a lawyer to represent them, she said, so Briscoe decided to help by offering free legal services.
So far, the GA Mass Defense program has reached out to more than 300 people, Briscoe said. Briscoe has trained 50 legal interns, and 30 of them have spent 75 hours each at social service offices offering help. She has also trained 19 lawyers who are willing to offer pro bono work by giving them lectures on the history of GA and tips on how to represent people. Sixteen lawyers have signed up. “I think lawyers realized that this is very important,” said Briscoe, a native of El Paso, Texas, whose volunteer experiences at age 13, working to provide clean water to the Mexicans who lived across the river, led to her to pursue a career as a public interest lawyer.
“Do you have GA?” asked Briscoe, kneeling on the floor of the Social Services Agency office so that she could maintain eye contact with the person she was talking to.
“No, I missed the job search session and I lost GA as a sanction for that,” said 23-year old Tavaris Webb, who said he had to quit his job last year at a UPS office because he hurt his back. He was at the agency to reschedule a job search session, to request getting his GA funds back, and also to inquire about why his food stamps were terminated, too.
“If they still do not give GA back to you, you should contact us,” said Briscoe.
Hearings on GA fund reinstatements will be held April 20-22 at a hearing office at 7751 Edgewater Drive, Oakland.
4/20/2010: An earlier version of this story mentioned that Ms. Goddard goes to law school at State University of San Francisco. However, Ms. Goddard is a law student at University of San Francisco. It also said El Paso was in New Mexico but it is in Texas. This version of the story has been amended. Oakland North regrets the errors.
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